4 April 2019

The Bulk of Printed News is Consumer-Paid, So why is Digital Different?

You wouldn't ask a consumer looking to purchase a single newspaper for an expensive monthly subscription, so why has that become the norm in digital? Christopher Kerrisk explores the confusing world of paid digital news.




Perhaps it sounds radical, and maybe I’ll upset a few people by saying:


“100% of digital news content should be paid and accounted for”.


In news print, 100% of paper copies are paid and accounted for… so, why is less than 1% of digital news content paid for by readers globally?


It is worth noting that when you read the newspaper in a café, hotel or airport for free, it was still purchased and paid for by a business.


If you read a discarded paper on the train, then that copy was originally purchased by a fellow commuter before it was left behind.


Across the majority of print media – the consumer has historically carried the cost.



Consider your own experience. If you only want Saturday’s paper for Friday night’s footy results, then it’s a one-off, casual purchase at the local newsagent or convenience store.


A purchase decision, tied to immediate gratification, for a specific, near term desire.


Alternatively, if you’re a big fan of your local paper then you’ve always had the option to subscribe and get it delivered (something many of us remember from childhood or still do).


In print, publishers have always had the ability to move consumers along a purchase funnel from “Free Sample” to Casual Purchase, and ultimately to the holy grail, Subscription. Either way each specific copy was purchased.


This funnel allowed considerable flexibility, with payment methodologies never putting a significant mental barrier between the consumer and the print product.


  • Want to browse a few pages for free to see if you like it? Totally fine.
  • Want a single-copy just for the cover article? No problem.
  • Love it enough to subscribe? Sure thing.


For hundreds of years, the commercial model that underpinned print had both the consumer and the publisher covered.



So, why, when entering the digital age (where consumer convenience, choice and flexibility are universally-accepted pillars of product development) have we only one consumer-facing payment option (i.e. a monthly subscription) as the industry standard?



Reverse engineer this concept back to the non-digital world.


Imagine walking into a newsagent attempting to buy a copy of today’s paper, only to be told your single purchase option is to subscribe to the newspaper every day for the next six months… absurd right?


Why can’t a friend who has purchased a monthly digital subscription share a few articles with another friend (in the same way they would a paper)?


Why can’t I make a casual digital purchase on a single article or a single session or for a single day?


The medium has changed – but not the consumer’s core motivation.


If I have never read Publisher X’s content, and the first time I land on their website, they ask me to commit to a monthly subscription… how can they actually expect better than 1% conversion rate? Is this a sustainable model for the future of digital news?


I’m an avid reader, an IDEAL target market for news publishers.


I have a couple of digital news subscriptions… and that’s about all you’re going to get out of me (two, maybe three).


When I hit a paywall for a news product I’m not subscribed to, my natural instinct (if I’m invested) is to go to all sorts of lengths to try and circumvent it.


This includes:


  • Leaving the site and searching for similar content elsewhere.
  • Clearing my cache and cookies to bypass.
  • Sending a text to a friend who has a subscription to take screen shots of the article.
  • Waiting till the competitor (who has my subscription) writes a comparable article.
  • Getting in the car and drive to the newsagent to buy a copy of today’s paper.
  • And I know I’m not alone in this behaviour!


I’d be happy to make a casual, one-off purchase for temporary access, but once my budget is maxed out or I only want the one article, I will never subscribe.


So why don’t publishers give me that option?


I’m well aware of the value of a monthly subscription to publishers over a casual purchase, but by my count there are less than 26 million digital news subscriptions globally with a population of seven billion – this screams “innovate!” to me.


Successful and profitable industries including music, movies, telecommunications, automotive and even housing all offer multiple payment options to cater for individual budgets, lifestyle and preferences.


It is time digital publishing does the same.


In the age of “fake news”, it would be reassuring to know that the vast majority of professional journalism is being paid for by consumers, our digital newsrooms are self-sufficient and can afford the salaries of journalists and associated staff well into the future.